- Burness, Peter
- History - WW1
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I
- December 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Reprinted by kind permission of Editor of ‘Despatch’
ZEEBRUGGE LAY ON THE BELGIAN COAST at the mouth of the inland port of Bruges, a major German U-boat base. Operating out of Bruges, the Germans played havoc with shipping in the English Channel, seriously hampering Britain’s war effort.
Throughout the war proposals for blocking or bombardment of the base had been considered, and rejected. However, in late 1917 Admiral Sir Roger Keyes became Director of the Plans Division for the Admiralty and carefully studied the dossier of projects to block the port. On 3rd December he submitted a composite amended plan to close Zeebrugge and Ostend canal entrances by sinking old warships at their mouths.
Soon after, Keyes was ordered to a new command at Dover, but before taking up the appointment his plan was approved, and he was left free to plan and execute the raid.
To protect the Zeebrugge canal entrance a breakwater, over half a mile long, curved out from the shore to form an artificial harbour. This mole was heavily defended with several gun emplacements. Keyes proposed to stage a diversionary assault on the mole, using a battalion of Marines to assist his Bluejackets. The force was to be landed from the old armoured cruiser selected for the raid, HMS Vindictive.
Vindictive was especially fitted out for the raid with 7.5-inch howitzers, flame-throwers, pom-poms and Lewis guns. She retained two 6-inch guns on each side of the upper deck, three pom-poms, 10 Lewis guns, and added four batteries (each of four) of Stokes mortars on the port side. She was fitted with heavy fenders, and ramps were installed for the landing parties.
Vindictive was to carry the first wave of the assaulting force, the remainder would be on two Mersey ferryboats – Iris and Daffodil. These small ships were withdrawn from service for the raid. They were double-hulled and double-bottomed – almost unsinkable. HM Ships Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia were selected as the blockships.
The storming parties were to consist of Royal Marines and three groups of Navy men, two on the Vindictive and one on the Iris. There would also be a demolition party of 50 seamen in the Daffodil.
The battle cruiser HMAS Australia had joined the British Grand Fleet in 1915, and since then had been engaged in the necessary, but monotonous, convoy and escort duties. By an unlucky collision with the battle-cruiser, New Zealand, she had missed the Battle of Jutland and by 1918 her crew, who had not seen Australia since the first month of the war, were anxious for action.
On 23rd February 1918, Australia was at Rosyth, having returned from 48 hours convoy duty.
‘We were coaling ship, taking in about 2,000 tons and provisions etc., when we received a wireless asking for volunteers to the number of eleven men for special service. Seamen and stokers were asked to volunteer. Soon it was seen that all who wished to go would not be accepted, much to their disappointment. Eleven were chosen.‘
Lieutenant-Commander W.H.V. Edgar, RAN, was selected as engineer-officer and put in charge of the engine room of the Iris, while six Australian seamen would go on Vindictive and six stokers on the blockship Thetis. They were to be in the thick of the action.
The seamen assigned to the raiding parties began intensive training, alongside the marines, in rifle and bayonet drill and bombing practice. The Australian seamen ‘did their share, and came out with most marks to their credit, after the marines had a good try to beat them. The Australian stokers joined HMS Thetis – their work did not allow for much rifle drill, but they did their share and learnt their ship from stem to stern.’
The tasks of the seamen storming parties were to work the additional Stokes mortars, to land them on the mole if ordered, to place the gangways on the Vindictive, to help in securing the ship, to form the first flight onto the mole and fight their way out to the lighthouse and light flares as a guide to the blockships, and finally to cover the retirement of the support ships with smoke screens. A party was also assigned to destroy the German guns on the mole, when captured.